Sunday, February 26, 2017

No Way But This: In Search of Paul Robeson, by Jeff Sparrow

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Melbourne journalist Jeff Sparrow's search for Paul Robeson cleverly mixes essay, journalism, history and biography to produce something quite original and insightful.

Paul Robeson is perhaps best known to Australian audiences as the African American singer and actor, made famous through his role in Show Boat. Robeson actually visited Australia in 1960, part of a two month tour. During his time in the country he performed at the construction site of the Sydney Opera House and met Indigenous activist, Faith Bandler, who told him of the poor condition of Australia’s Aborigines.

Robeson was politically active throughout his life, pursuing socialist causes such as the coal miners of Wales and the Spanish Civil War (his father had been a slave, no doubt spurring him to fight for causes of social justice). A commitment to Marxism and the Soviet Union, however, would bring him much grief. During America’s toxic McCarthy period he was denounced and blacklisted, making it almost impossible for him to work and earn a living. His passport was also revoked, meaning he was virtually under house arrest, unable to leave the country and pursue other work options. Robeson would also have a near mental breakdown when the full horrors of Stalin’s period of power were revealed. Having put so much faith in the Soviet Union as the way forward for a society devoted to justice and equity, then to discover its murderous secret history, caused Robeson a personal crisis that resulted in a suicide attempt.

Melbourne writer and academic Jeff Sparrow seems an unlikely author for this refreshingly loose and freewheeling biography of Paul Robeson. What could a white Australian have to write about the African American experience? To my surprise, No Way But This: In Search of Paul Robeson, turned out to be a thoroughly engaging read. The book cleverly mixes essay, journalism, history and biography to produce something quite original and insightful. Jeff Sparrow has done the hard yards, research wise. He travelled the world, visiting places key to Robeson’s political formation - Spain, Wales, America, Britain and Russia - interviewing historians, activists and friends. It is this on the ground field work that lifts the book out of what could have been a rather pedestrian affair into something that offers genuine insights into race and politics.

No Way But This: In Search of Paul Robeson takes a look at socialist politics of the twentieth century, its triumphs and terrible failures, through the prism of one passionate man, the son of a former slave. Highly recommended!

No Way But This: In Search of Paul Robeson, by Jeff Sparrow. Published by Scribe. ISBN: 9781925321852  RRP: $32.99

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